Didn't seem like a good idea when Raven Software announced it was working on Heretic II. After all, Heretic, the original Doom clone, spawned the Doom engine-based sequel Hexen, which gave rise to the Quake engine-based Hexen II. So when the Raven team decided to pull a fast one and create a "true" sequel to the original Heretic based on the Quake II engine, it seemed like they were just being cute. But it turns out Raven was dead serious, as not only is Heretic II a satisfying departure from the lukewarmly received Hexen series, but it's a bold step away from the genre's traditional first-person confinement. Heretic II, which plays from a behind-the-back third-person perspective, still controls a lot like a first-person shooter, but it's different enough to look and feel not just like a great new shooter, but like a great new kind of game. You wouldn't want to live there, but the world of Heretic II is a beautiful place to visit. Sure, the game is based on the Quake II engine, but you'd never guess from looking at it since it looks just that much better. Gone are the claustrophobic corridors of id's shooter. Instead you get expansive, meticulously detailed, and tastefully colored architecture that is amazing to behold more often than not. Even those sorts of places that are traditionally ugly and drab, like swamps and dusty old temples, look absolutely stunning in Heretic II, with fog and lighting effects subtly implemented to make such places look both real and fantastic. All the environments look different, from room to room, and especially from level to level. A host of appropriately dressed, appropriately sinister monsters populate each region, and all of them look great even if some look a little puny. Best of all, they die in spectacular gouts of blood and gore, and you can even dismember the humanoid ones with your sword staff. The violence is accented by appropriate if somewhat subdued and nondescript sound effects and a correspondingly meek and understated musical score.
Since the soft-spoken elf hero Corvus is in the spotlight at all times, he's made to look especially detailed. He walks, runs, sneaks, sidesteps, crawls, rolls, flips, climbs, and swims much as you'd expect from an elf of his stature, but he's at his most impressive when he's fighting. The mainstay in Corvus' arsenal is his sword staff, which he'll power up to stunning potency over the course of his quest. He has several slick moves with this weapon and can even pole-vault with it to make those especially difficult jumps. The brunt of his ranged weapons are magic spells, including fire- and lightning-based attacks, and worse. All of these look dazzling as they light up the screen, and if anything, they're not quite as devastating in effect as they are in appearance. Corvus has other tricks up his sleeve: a Hellstaff, which fires energy bolts at a furious rate; the Storm Bow, whose magical red arrows create deadly thunder showers; and the Phoenix Bow, whose ammunition explodes in the image of its fiery namesake. All of these can be powered up temporarily by means of the Tome of Power, which makes the attacks even more spectacular to behold, and all the deadlier in practice.
While it was a single-use power-up in previous Heretic games, the Tome is now a persistent item (not to mention a character in the story) that requires defensive mana for its effects, which also fuels several useful defensive spells. From the meteor shield, whose shimmering green boulders wait in orbit and lash out at your enemies, to the fearsome morph ovum that turns your enemies into henpecked shells of their former selves, the defensive spells are as impressive as the main arsenal. Using offensive and defensive abilities in proper conjunction all while dodging enemy attacks is the key to Heretic II, and although it's a similar enough feel to your typical first-person shooter, it's hardly the same. Certainly the third-person perspective gives you a better sense of dodging enemy attacks, but the camera, which only rarely obstructs your view, does in fact inhibit some of your peripheral vision and makes it difficult to detect enemies attacking from the flanks. Corvus has a lot of moves in his repertoire, and most of them are useful, but altogether he moves a little sluggishly compared with your typical first-person action hero, especially while sidestepping. Still, he could run circles around Lara Croft any day, and a simple, even amusing tutorial will help you get acquainted with how he operates in no time.
Heretic II fixes most every shortcoming the series ever had, in large part by returning to the Heretic formula rather than following the Hexen tradition. Although Hexen and its sequel each offered three character classes to choose from, the same resources could have gone into making a single, far more interesting protagonist. That's what Raven did with Heretic II, whose hero packs so much firepower that you won't soon find yourself getting bored using the same old magic tricks. Better yet, the levels are finely paced, with ammunition and mana in rather short supply such that you'll have to be conservative with your attacks, even as new weapons, spells, and power-ups are introduced with perfect timing. The levels are large, cohesive, and intuitively structured, and you even get nicely acted in-game cutscenes during and between them. You can travel back and forth between certain areas in a throwback to the Hexen and Quake II hub system, but much like those other games, the hub system doesn't work all that well. It's just not much fun to have to backtrack, even if you do face new enemies on the way back, but it is a convenient means of increasing the length of the game. Searching for keys to locked doors or pushing three buttons in sequence isn't much fun either, and you'll be forced to do such petty tasks occasionally, but never in excess.
If there's any real fault to Heretic II, it's in the name - this game is in a league above its predecessors, and although it continues the original's plot and holds over many of its weapons and items, it mustn't be regarded with the kind of prejudice its predecessors might evoke. Otherwise, sure, the game suffers from a bug or two, level load times aren't insubstantial, the third-person perspective thing isn't exactly revolutionary, and altogether the game isn't very long (although it's worth replaying cooperatively). Occasional areas in Heretic II can be frustrating either because they're difficult or because they're confusing, and as a deathmatch game, it isn't as fast and furious as Quake. But one look at the game, one taste of any of the weapons it places at your disposal, and you'll forget all about the little things like that.